Louisiana State University Tigers
New Orleans, Louisiana
O. Perry Walker High School
St. Augustine High School
Blessed with incredible athletic ability, Johnson is nicknamed "The Freak" for his ability to chase down ball carriers all over the field, formerly doing that feat as a 330-pound freshman, when even the veteran leaders on the Tigers defense were calling him their best run defender and predicted that once he got his opportunity to start, he would take his place alongside other LSU defensive line greats.
Johnson demonstrates all the physical skills look for in a physical interior lineman — excellent upper body power, an explosive first step out of his stance and demonstrating "true" violence with his hand punch that often puts an offensive lineman on the ground.
Johnson is the type that plays with a high motor and is much faster in pursuit than his 40-yard dash indicates. He has the ideal combination of raw power and quickness to likely handle pass rush duties in a 3-4 defensive alignment. With his loose hips and body control, he looks like a linebacker with the flexibility he demonstrates working down the line.
Ever since he arrived on Louisiana State's campus, the colorful Johnson has been "one of the guys" in the locker room, making a point to keep his teammates loose, but also prepare to go to combat on Saturdays. His future teammates knew about his exploits on the football field at O. Perry Walker High School, where he was universally regarded as the best defensive tackle in the prep ranks.
They soon found out that Johnson had another passion outside of chasing down ball carriers and quarterbacks — music. Even before football, the music came first. Even before he was "The Freak," long before he was the next "Chosen One" in the long procession of great LSU defensive linemen, he was a latter-day little Anthony.
Little Anthony Johnson, age 4, summoning up the courage to stand before a packed congregation at Beautiful Zion Baptist Church and let loose that voice that was tiny but brimming with potential on the lines of R. Kelly's anthem-like "I Believe I Can Fly."
"Music is influential in my life," said Johnson, a frequent soloist in his high school choir at O. Perry Walker. "It calms me down. It soothes me." There are, it seems, two sides at odds within Anthony Johnson. There is the soulful expressive side, the part of him that writes his own music, that loves to cook (Waldorf salad is his favorite dish), that before he goes to bed each night pens thoughts in a notebook and shares some of the more inspirational messages on his Twitter account.
Then there is the combative aspect, the side of raw power and rage that he unleashes on the football field each Saturday. The side encased in a now 6-foot-3, 308-pound body so talented, so quick and agile, it prompted former Tennessee defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin to label him "The Freak" during a recruiting visit there. Johnson doesn't shy away from labels. He embraces them. They help explain the side of him that can only find its true expression between the sidelines.
"I change into a whole other man" when on the field, Johnson said. "I consider myself a silverback gorilla. A silverback will hardly attack anyone unless they're messed with. I tell people there are two silverback gorillas in the world — one in Uganda and one in Baton Rouge." To watch Johnson work on the field is like watching an artist paint on his canvas.
A video from a LSU practice showed him easily deflecting a medicine ball tossed at his legs like a would-be blocker, chop his steps through three blocking pads laid on the ground like big blue speed bumps and finally slam his hurtling mass into a tackling dummy that has the unfortunate chore of substituting for an opposing ball carrier.
Freakishly gifted, is what the Tigers brass calls him. Even his beard could be the stuff of a Dos Equis "Most interesting man in the world" commercial. Johnson boasts he's had facial hair since he was 12. His former coach says that's no joke. In his eyes, Johnson has no equal.
"I don't have any Anthonys," said Emanuel Powell, Johnson's coach at O. Perry Walker, in describing his team this fall at the newly consolidated Landry-Walker High School in the Algiers section of New Orleans. "I don't know if I will ever have a kid with that personality and athleticism. I literally watched him beat up a whole offensive line at practice once. It's just unbelievable. Those kinds of kids only come along once every 10, 15 years — or in a lifetime."
There was a time when there was a chance Johnson wouldn't come back to New Orleans at all. Like so many others from the city, Johnson's family was forced to flee by Hurricane Katrina eight years ago, moving briefly to Atlanta, then to Mobile, Alabama. While the family was there, Johnson found resistance as he tried to walk on to the middle school football team.
"He went to talk to the coaches, and they thought he was a grown man," said Nakisha Johnson, Anthony's mother. "He said, ‘No, I'm only 12. I would like to come and play.' They gave him the nickname ‘Big 12.' He played two games and led (Mobile) county in tackles. He didn't want to leave because they were doing so well."
The family stayed in Mobile about six months before returning in 2006, when Johnson switched from St. Augustine, where he played middle school quarterback, to O. Perry Walker High in the fall of 2007. That ninth-grade year was his introduction to defense. It was like coming home a second time.
"In ninth grade, I gained about 30 or 40 pounds and got to about 260," Johnson said. "My coach told me my quarterback days were over. I started on the outside (at defensive end) then moved to the inside. Ever since then, I've been playing defensive tackle and I love it."
Johnson's growth as a football player was stunningly swift. He set the state high school career sack record with 67.5 and, by his senior year in 2010, he was the nation's top-rated defensive tackle prospect, a Parade All-American and the first defensive lineman ever to win the Louisiana Gatorade Player of the Year Award.
Johnson and South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney were clearly the top two defensive line prospects nationally for the Class of 2010. Johnson was called "Mr. Inside" and Clowney was regarded as "Mr. Outside." But while Clowney's college career was off to a meteoric rise with the Gamecocks, Johnson was doing a slow burn at LSU.
The massive defensive tackle played in all 27 of LSU's games his first two seasons, but was limited to just three starts as a sophomore. In 14 contests as a freshman, he managed just 12 tackles, but made the most of that limited playing time, as he made one sack with three other stops behind the line of scrimmage.
His sophomore season was another trying campaign for the youngster who was used to being on the field for every snap. He played in 13 games, managing 30 tackles with three sacks and 10 stops-for-loss. He did manage to earn three starting assignments when injuries hit the front wall.
Perhaps showing his coaches what they could see from him if given more starting assignments, he combined for 13 tackles, 10 solo hits, two sacks, 5.5 stops behind the line of scrimmage and two pressures for his performances in the Idaho, Towson and Auburn clashes. Playing in reserve the other 10 games, he made 17 tackles (just one solo) with one sack and 4.5 stops-for-loss.
Johnson was very pleased when the coaches told him during 2013 offseason drills that he was going to take over strong-side defensive tackle duties as a junior. Even though his light, upbeat tone rarely changes when he describes his first two college seasons, Johnson is candid in saying they could have been better.
"I feel like I have something to prove," said Johnson, who is cousins with former Alabama and Dutchtown High running back Eddie Lacy. "Coming out of high school, I was highly touted, along with Jadeveon Clowney. He got a lot of playing time early and felt the praise. I kind of felt belittled because I wasn't able to play, but my time was coming.
"This year I'm ready to show the world what they've been waiting for — not only that I can play football, but great football. I feel like I have been given an opportunity. That's why I take every rep and do it with a vengeance."
"On the field, I want to be ‘The Freak' — the guy everyone is intimidated by. Someone teammates rally around," he said. "Off the field, I just want to be laidback, a low-key guy who likes to have fun."
The 2013 season saw Johnson develop instant chemistry with Ego Johnson, his running mate at the two tackle positions. The Tigers entered the campaign having lost eight starters from their defensive unit to either graduation or defections. One of the returning starters, safety Craig Loston, would spend more time on the sidelines with injuries than on the football field.
All four starters on the defensive line looked to Johnson as the "grizzled veteran," as he boasted more starts (three) than the other three newcomers combined. Even with all of those news faces, the defense played a major role in the Tigers matching their 10-3 record produced by their veteran-laden unit in 2012.
The chemistry by the few new starters on the front wall played a key part to the team staying in contention for the Southeastern Conference title until late in the schedule. Johnson would lead the team with nine stops behind the line of scrimmage that included three sacks. He had a career-high 35 tackles and all three of his quarterback pressures caused turnovers (one fumble and two interceptions).
The three other starters on the defensive line took advantage of the opportunities afforded them while Johnson was chasing down ball carriers throughout the backfield. Ego Ferguson, Danielle Hunter and Jermauria Rasco, Johnson's line-mates, got into the back-field to record a combined 11 sacks (team had 27) and 27.0 tackles behind the line of scrimmage (Tigers collected 69 for the season). 19 of the team's 31 quarterback pressures were registered by that quartet up front.
One day after the Tigers defeated Iowa in the Outback Bowl, Johnson announced that he was leaving school to enter the 2014 NFL Draft. One day after Johnson's announcement, Ferguson did likewise, leaving a gaping hole that Louisiana State must fill through astute recruiting. "These last three years at LSU have been good to me, but I have made the decision to enter the 2014 NFL draft," Johnson announced on Twitter.
Johnson appeared in 40 games at Louisiana State, starting 16 contests as the Tigers' strong-side defensive tackle…Recorded 77 tackles (32 solos) with seven sacks for minus 48 yards, 22.0 stops for losses of 83 yards, five quarterback pressures, two pass deflections and one interception.